Having endured civil war, separation from their families, hunger, and dehydration during a thousand-mile trek through sub-Saharan Africa, and 10 years in a U.N. refugee camp while awaiting the myriad challenges of resettlement in the United States, the three “lost boys of Sudan” in God Grew Tired of Us can certainly withstand their sketchy portrayals in a borderline lazy but nonetheless compelling documentary co-produced by National Geographic.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that God Grew Tired of Us, winner of two documentary prizes at last year’s Sundance, is another Hollywood gloss on human tragedy. (Brad Pitt is one of the film’s three movie-star producers; Nicole Kidman narrates in alternately lofty and condescending tones.) In the tradition of Schindler’s List and any number of Tinseltown’s historic spins, the doc finds its none-too-inconvenient truth in the miraculous exception to the rule. Millions have died in the Sudanese war between Islamic fundamentalists in the north and separatist Christians in the south; only half of the 27,000 boys who fled southern Sudan in 1983 (girls were enslaved) reached refuge in Kenya, where a small number were selected to emigrate to the U.S. in 2001. Of these, filmmaker Christopher Quinn chose three to follow—presumably on the basis of their potential to make it.
God Grew Tired of Us implies unmitigated suffering through its title alone, but a full third of the movie is devoted to observing the men’s faintly comic attempts at comprehending modern American conveniences—potato chips, TV, escalators, the toilet. Lost Boys in the Supermarket would have been an accurate title too. As Kidman’s voiceovers reduce the impact of Britain’s fickle colonialism to a single sentence, the root causes of the Sudanese war are left unexplored.
What the film does do very effectively is allow the three eloquent subjects to steal it—away, that is, from Quinn’s apparent ambition to make them look merely adorable. This they accomplish largely in interview portions that Quinn—who seems to have asked little more than “How do you feel now?”—sprinkles throughout the film. Time and again, the men expand the movie’s narrow focus through their words. “It is a shame to have a country that doesn’t take care of its own people,” one of them says, referring directly to Sudan, but, implicitly, to the land of freedom as well.
Two of the men, Daniel Abul Pach and Panther Bior, take up residence in Pittsburgh, while John Bul Dau sets up in Syracuse. John, the most charismatic and driven of the three, gets two jobs—one packing gaskets in a factory, and another “grilling bah-gahs at McDonald’s,” as Kidman reports with palpable contempt for something or other. Daniel processes checks at a bank, and Panther works as a busboy in a hotel restaurant. Most of the men’s waking hours are spent at work or en route to and from work, although Quinn ensures that there’s a copious amount of leisure-time shopping in the film, some of which occasions genuine humor. Surrounded by holiday cheer, one lost boy rhetorically asks whether Santa Claus and Christmas trees actually appear in the Bible.
Whatever dramatic structure Quinn’s unfocused portrait contains is supplied by the subjects. Initially awed by America and its trappings, the men eventually observe that this bountiful land is oddly lacking in camaraderie and joy, if not dotted with peril. In Pittsburgh, lost boys are advised to travel in small numbers so as not to alarm local store owners—a disturbing and seemingly vital story that Quinn either decided to convey solely through narration or failed to capture in pictures. (The fate of a Pittsburgh lost boy who went missing and was arrested for “erratic behavior” likewise earns brief description in the film, but no investigation.)
As a work of documentary storytelling, God Grew Tired of Us has nothing on 2003’s vastly superior Lost Boys of Sudan, whose poetic approach to the assimilation of its subjects is far less pushy in the quest for fish-out-of-water pathos and a happy ending. Were it not for Quinn’s interviews with the men, one wouldn’t know from watching his film that accepting loneliness, stress, overwork, and meager finances is a condition of life for the lost boys if not for most immigrants in the United States.
Here the American dream seems to triumph over all manner of African adversity. If these men cannot only manage the old bootstrap-pull but blend in at Whole Foods as well, what’s the problem? Each of the lost boys is shown to find himself with a respectable career, aiding in Sudanese relief efforts —not exactly an urgent call to action from the film while much of East Africa burns. By default, the doc’s most galvanizing scene has John’s long-lost mother, fresh off the plane from Sudan, expressing her elation at seeing her son in the airport—falling to the ground, dancing, and issuing lovely musical yelps. Her immediate success in the land of opportunity is having not assimilated in the least.